Pittsburgh Mercy brings 'Dancing Classrooms' to inner-city schools

February 1, 2014

Kids learn social graces and a whole lot more



In mid-December, 124 fifth-grade students from 10 inner-city Pittsburgh elementary schools lit up the dance floor of a school auditorium, showing off their merengue, foxtrot, rumba, tango and swing moves during a ballroom dancing competition.

Ten weeks prior, few of them knew even the most basic two-step — and many of them were just young enough to balk at the idea of holding hands with an unrelated member of the opposite sex. Through the "Dancing Classrooms Pittsburgh" program from Pittsburgh Mercy Health System, the children learned to keep time with the music and glide and spin in step with a partner. And somewhere in the process, perhaps mid-twirl, they developed poise, self-confidence and a touch of social grace.

Taz'hae Dean and Jacoby Dupree of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School K-5 perform a "boogie walk" in a swing dance. (Photo by Archie Carpenter, courtesy of Pittsburgh Mercy Health System.)

Ballroom dance instructor Gena Melago said at the December competition, during the children's grand entrance before hundreds of parents, teachers and peers, "I get chills watching them walking tall, arm in arm, quiet and proud. They carry themselves completely differently" than they did before beginning Dancing Classrooms at the start of the school year.

"You see that the kids have been transformed," through the program, said Rodney Necciai, the principal of Pittsburgh Langley K-8, one of the schools in the competition. "To see what the kids put in and to know their stories — some come from a hard home life — it's neat to see them up there (competing)."

Mad Hot dancers

Mark Rogalsky, unit manager of prevention services for Pittsburgh Mercy, helped to bring Dancing Classrooms to Pittsburgh. He had seen the 2005 documentary Mad Hot Ballroom, about how ballroom dancer and dance instructor Pierre Dulaine taught New York City school students to dance, an experience that inspired Dulaine to create Dancing Classrooms. That program places ballroom dance instructors in fifth and eighth grade classrooms around the world. Dulaine's program uses the exact same teaching methods and dance steps for every class, no matter where the program is taught.

In early 2009, Rogalsky and Barbara Rudiak, then-Pittsburgh public schools assistant superintendent, coordinated with Dulaine's New York-based Dancing Classrooms organization to bring the program to Pittsburgh, beginning during the 2009-10 school year. Since then, teaching artists paid by Pittsburgh Mercy and trained in the Dulaine method by local instructors have been teaching students to twirl, dip and promenade at select Pittsburgh schools twice a week for 10 weeks of the school year. Pittsburgh Mercy has hired fitness instructors, dance teachers, a retired principal and a Zumba instructor to teach the classes — all had prior experience working with children.

At the end of each semester, each school's principal, teachers and teaching artists pick their top-performing students — and this could be those who have improved behaviorally or advanced the most in their dancing — to compete in the "Colors of the Rainbow" event. Judges at that event select the teams of five schools to compete in Dancing Classrooms Pittsburgh's finals in the spring. School staff and parents often help students prepare for that competition.

Both public and private Pittsburgh schools participate. Rogalsky determines which schools to work with each year. Some schools return year after year; some rotate in and out of the mix. Last year, the program expanded to include an eighth-grade pilot program. This year 10 fifth grades and six eighth grades took part.

It costs Pittsburgh Mercy about $90,000 annually to offer the program.

Since the Dancing Classroom's inception in Pittsburgh, more than 3,000 children have learned ballroom dance.

Anchor step

Rogalsky said ballroom dance teaches children self-discipline, problem solving, manners, creative thinking, resiliency, commitment and self-efficacy.

Rogalsky and teaching artist Melago said at the start of the in-school program, the fifth graders usually are reluctant to participate, and most don't want to dance with members of the opposite sex. During the early sessions, the instructors have the children dance without a partner, not facing each other. As the instruction progresses, the boys and girls dance hand-to-hand, eventually advancing to traditional dance holds. Throughout the lessons, students change partners frequently, but they pair with a specific partner for the competitions.

To master the choreography, the children must concentrate and listen carefully to instruction, follow directions, work together and practice at home — all key skills for young students.

Melago said as the students gain self-assurance on the dance floor, "you feel the energy change, you feel them change, you see them fall into place" with the program.

Studies of the Pittsburgh program show that Dancing Classrooms participants had higher grades and greater academic improvement over a school year than did those who didn't participate in the program. Researchers found the program provided a way for children to get moderate to vigorous exercise. Parents and principals when surveyed reported behavioral improvements in children.

New skills

Tyrone Tillman's son Micah took part in Dancing Classrooms Pittsburgh when the boy was in fifth grade last year. Tillman said he was surprised how enthusiastic Micah and his classmates were about learning to dance, once they learned a few steps. He said Micah developed new leadership skills and gained a new level of respect for his peers in the sessions.

Micah performed in last year's finals. Micah said the experience helped him learn to be in front of a group without being nervous. He said his favorite part of the experience was during the competition, when "I showed my parents how I could dance this stuff. They said, 'Good job.'"

Common ground

Melago said the instruction comes at a pivotal point in the children's lives. "This is when you are figuring out who you are and where you fit in."

She added that with arts funding being cut at schools, many inner-city schoolchildren would miss out on cultural experiences were it not for Dancing Classrooms.

Rogalsky said most of the schools served by the program have a large percentage of lower-income children. He said about
90 percent of the children in inner-city Pittsburgh qualify for the free or reduced lunch program.

At one of the several schools Melago serves, fighting and violence are commonplace. "With this program, the kids work together, they have common ground.

"One teacher told me they sit around talking about rumba all day," Melago said.


Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.